Wagner
Tannhäuser – opera in three acts
(libretto by the composer)
Elisabeth – Jane Eaglen
Venus – Waltraud Meier
Hermann – René Pape
Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Thomas Hampson
Walther von der Vogelweide – Gunnar Gudbjörnsson
Biterolf – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Heinrich der Schreiber – Stephan Rügamer
Reinmar von Zweter – Alfred Reiter
Shepherd – Dorothea Röchsmann

Chorus of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin
Berlin Staatskapelle conducted by Daniel Barenboim
CD No: TELDEC 8573-88064-2 (3 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: June 2002
Though few would doubt its greatness, Tannhäuser remains the most problematic of Wagner’s works. It seemingly resists cogent interpretation – by common critical consent, there is no definitive recording, no benchmark performance by which others can be judged – and its history, uniquely in Wagner’s output, is riddled with editorial controversy.
Famously, there are two versions of the score - the 1845 Dresden original and the Paris revision of 1861 – which effectively constitute two rather different operas, both called Tannhäuser. Wagner was never happy with either and spent most of his career planning a final, definitive revision, which he never actually started, though he authorised an amalgam which tacks the opening of the Paris version onto the Dresden score by means of a linking passage after the Venusberg music. (This is the version that forms the basis of Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1962 Phillips recording.) At Bayreuth in 1954, however, there was an almighty furore when Wieland Wagner and Joseph Keilberth opted for an edition of their own, mercifully preserved in sound by Melodram, which swivels between Wagner’s two scores with vertiginous, if totally convincing abandon. For this new studio recording from Teldec, made in tandem with a series of performances at the Berlin Staatsoper, Daniel Barenboim has similarly opted for his own conflation, though the result is perhaps less than ideal. Broadly speaking, he takes the Dresden version as his basis, though he incorporates the first scene between Venus and Tannhäuser from the Paris score.
Most people would agree that the music here, written post-Tristan and often scorchingly erotic, is infinitely preferable. What Barenboim keeps, however, is the briefer, tamer Dresden version of the Venusberg orgies – the very music that Wagner was anxious to retain in his own combined edition. Keilberth’s solution – playing the original overture, then linking the Paris orgy sequence to the start of its Dresden counterpart – is infinitely preferable here. Despite arguments about the cogency of the Dresden version, the later Venusberg music constitutes one of the greatest passages in Wagner’s output and to omit it strikes me as perverse, doubly so on this occasion given Barenboim’s interpretation of the work as a whole.
He views the opera very much as a study of the thin dividing line between sexual and spiritual experience, and as such anchors it as the antecedent of both Tristan and Parsifal. This forms a marked contrast with both Keilberth’s remorseless swirling between austerity and obscenity and with Solti (conducting the Paris score for Decca), who adopts the nineteenth-century decadent stance on the work, elevating the Venusberg over the courtly chastity – and emotional hypocrisy – of the Wartburg. Barenboim unleashes his orchestral forces in a continual sensuous flood, whether he’s dealing with Venus’s seductive frenzies, Tannhäuser’s deep conflict or the chromatic string postlude to Wolfram’s invocation to the evening star. Since the ’evening star’ itself is the astronomical or astrologic Venus, the ambiguity is telling. There’s no attempt at religiosity – the chorales are all taken at considerable speed – while the grand ceremonials of the Wartburg have a grave pomp that pre-empts Wagner’s later Grail Knights. The song contest itself is astonishingly handled, progressing from Wolfram’s spiritual tenderness to erotic chaos as if Venus’s music, repetitively crawling beneath Tannhäuser’s utterances, were gradually taking possession of the whole assembly.
In line with such a stance, Venus and Elisabeth emerge as being very much the twin polarities of sex and spirit between which the other characters pivot. They are not however, ideally matched. Jane Eaglen’s stainless steel, armour-plated virgin is contrasted with Waltraud Meier’s on-heat seductress. Eaglen, the set’s principal defect, has presumably been cast to emphasise Elisabeth’s toughness – this is a woman who, after all, is prepared to take on single-handedly a gang of armed men baying for blood – but in the process she emerges as stiffly inhumane.
There are major vocal inequalities here, too – an edgy pulse in the sound, occluded, autopilot German and far too many pitch problems. ’Allmächt’ge Jungfrau…’ is excruciatingly out of tune, its awkwardness hampered further by Barenboim’s decision to slow the score at this point and aspire to stasis for the only time in the performance. Meier, though not equalling Christa Ludwig for Solti, is fairly thrilling, the voice smoky and lived in, her handling of the text tinglingly indecent, marginally preferable here than in her two previous recordings of the role – in the Dresden version for Haitink (EMI) and the Paris score for Sinopoli (DG).
The men, meanwhile, are more consistent, and Peter Seiffert’s Tannhäuser must be considered the finest in sound. The mixture of Heldentenor heft with un-Teutonic lyricism is ideal as the taxing vocal lines ebb and flow. As a vocal actor he’s unfailingly impressive, sated yet ecstatic in his scenes with Venus, approaching Elisabeth with tremulous timidity, and forcefully darkening his tone in the final scenes where spiritual obloquy reigns and damnation is imminent. Thomas Hampson is a super-subtle Wolfram, noble in sorrow and profoundly tender in his devotion to Elisabeth, though the sudden passion of his delivery of his second song during the contest reveals an intensity of sexual desire that undercuts the supposed purity of his motivations. As the Landgrave, René Pape sounds a fraction young, though his deep affection for his daughter his profoundly touching. The recording itself is matchlessly engineered and can only be described as exemplary.
As a whole the set ranks among the best of a series of less than ideal performances. Seiffert and Hampson, in particular, demand to be heard, and few would want to be without Barenboim’s conducting or the outstanding playing from the Berlin Staatskapelle, though reservations about the edition and the presence of the very disappointing Eaglen will make it an impossible prospect for some. Of rival versions, meanwhile, Solti remains first choice for the Paris edition, while Konwitschny (EMI) is preferable to Haitink in the Dresden score. Keilberth’s performance, though marred by the barking Tannhäuser of Ramon Vinay and an indifferent Venus in Herta Wilfert, remains one of the most astonishing pieces of Wagner conducting to survive in sound and offers extraordinary insights into the work, not duplicated elsewhere.

 

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